Catholic

Houellebecq on restoration beyond Notre-Dame

Saturday, 20 April, 2019

It has been described as “an ecumenical, conservative and, in some views, neoconservative religious journal.” It’s First Things and among the contents of the May issue is an essay titled “Restoration,” which is an “exchange of views on religion between Michel Houellebecq and Geoffroy Lejeune.” What can one say about Houellebecq? He’s a French author of international fame whose latest novel is Serotonin. There’s much, much more, of course, but that’s sufficient for now, and Geoffroy Lejeune? He’s the editor of Valeurs actuelles, a French conservative weekly news magazine published in Paris.

Their conversation took place quite some time before Monday’s catastrophic fire in Notre-Dame cathedral, but whenever Houellebecq is involved, prescience is to be expected. Snippets:

Houellebecq: “In a Romanesque cloister I feel at peace, connected to the divinity. With Gothic cathedrals, it’s already something different. Beauty takes on a character there that Kant will later call sublime (beauty accompanied by the sensation of danger, such as a great storm at sea, or a thunderstorm high in the mountains). In a baroque church it’s no good at all, I could just as well be in a palace, or at the theater.”

Lejeune: “If you choose to go by architecture, there is indeed a striking aspect: In the time of the cathedrals, monumental places of worship were erected and their construction lasted longer than a man’s lifetime. The cathedrals of Chartres, Reims, and Paris were built in 75, 134, and 182 years, respectively. At that time, preference was not for the minuscule. By comparison, Trump Tower in New York was designed, constructed, and delivered in four years, between 1979 and 1983. You can say that motorization, technological progress, and materials explain this difference. So much for the business angle, but when we see the ugliness of modern churches, these unhappy cubes of faded cement, sometimes so hideous, which hardly ever tower above the horizon traced by the surrounding houses, one understands above all that what differentiates us from the Christian builders is ‘functional thinking,’ instead of dedicating the construction to God. It was better before, when the supernatural was seen everywhere, even in the cathedral spires pointing toward heaven.”

The big question posed by First things is: Can the Catholic Church regain her former splendour? Lejeune feels it probably can but the road will be long: “Today, the Church in Europe has shrunk back into certain hard cores, sociologically very homogeneous – a social class – cut off from the majority of souls. Its embourgeoisement is perhaps, in the end, the greatest scourge that strikes the Church at the beginning of the twenty-first century.”

Houellebecq, noted for his pessimism, is more optimistic: “Can the restoration of Catholicism to its former splendour repair our damaged civilization? Here we are in agreement – it’s much simpler, almost self-evident. The answer is ‘Yes.'”


The Extremadura Pietà

Friday, 19 April, 2019

The Counter-Reformation in Spain was dominated by mystics such as Saint Teresa of Ávila, Saint John of the Cross, Teresa de Cartagena, Saint Ignatius of Loyola and Juan de Avila. The artist who painted their prayers was Luis de Morales (1509 – 1586), who was born and buried in Badajoz, a remote town in Extremadura near the Portuguese border. Talent will out, however, and despite his relatively isolated location, Morales acquired fame and some fortune, as this snippet from his Prado profile highlights:

“For a large part of his life, Morales had an active artistic career that frequently obliged him to travel to arrange commissions, execute them or oversee their completion by the workshop. Otherwise, like many other artists in the region, he rounded off his finances with other sources of income. He owned houses and land in the city as well as vines, olives and livestock in the surrounding area. The markedly rural profile of both the artist and the milieu he lived in is evident too when we recall that Bishop Juan de Ribera paid him for several commissions in kind: wheat and barley, or ‘a Friesian horse with bit and saddle'”.

Luis de Morales completed his Extremadura Pietà sometime between 1565 and 1570. The figures of Mary and her crucified son are marked by grace and beauty despite the prevailing mood of anguish and grief. The Italian word pietà means “pity” or “compassion” and today, Good Friday, is when we should show some.

The Extremadura Pietà


Shrovetide

Monday, 4 March, 2019

“Shrove” is an interesting word. Has its origins in the Catholic practice of confessing one’s sins and being absolved or “shriven” of them. The word comes ultimately from the Latin scribere “to write”, which is the source of the English “scribe” and the Christian meaning evolved via the sense of “to prescribe penances”. The three days prior to Ash Wednesday are known as Shrovetide and, traditionally, it was a time of eating, drinking music making and card playing. Then came the fasting, one of those ancient rites in which food intake is limited and physical activities are reduced to the point where the person fasting enters a state of quiescence comparable, symbolically, to death. Today, it’s much less extreme, but if the “digital detox” trend ever gains traction in Lent, phone addicts who give up their addiction for the required 40 days and 40 nights may enter a state comparable, symbolically, to death.

Shrove Monday is an observance falling on the Monday before Ash Wednesday every year and it’s part of diverse Carnival celebrations that take place in many parts of the Christian world. Shrove Monday (Rosenmontag) is central to German, Swiss and Austrian Carnival calendar. In the Rhineland, as part of the pre-Lenten Fasching (Feast of Fools) festival , it’s a day of parades, marching, revelry and the display of satirical floats that poke fun at the political class.


Before Nones

Friday, 18 January, 2019

The Cistercian monks at Mount Melleray Abbey in Cappoquin, Co. Waterford, begin their day with Vigils at 4.30 am and end at 8.00 pm with Compline. At 2.15 pm, they celebrate Nones, also known as None, from the Latin Nona (“Ninth”, the Ninth Hour). Their prayers consist mainly of psalms.

Nones


The Feast of the Epiphany

Sunday, 6 January, 2019

“How Real Is The Meaning?” That was the question posed by Walter Russell Mead some years ago in a meditation on the Feast of the Epiphany. Taking as his starting point the Biblical account of the Three Kings who brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to Bethlehem, Mead went on a long journey into a meaning that’s centered on this question: How much of the Christmas story is “real” and how much of both this story — and ultimately the entire record of the Scriptures — is historically accurate? It’s all very apt for today’s Feast of the Epiphany. Mead’s conclusion:

“The wise men who followed the star were led to the center of all things. They did not understand the difference between astronomy and astrology as well as we do, but they used what they knew to get to where they needed to be.

It was enough for them, and people today can still do the same thing. We can follow the light we have to the center of all things, to a place that both shepherds and scholars can find, and when we arrive, like both the shepherds and the wise men, we will find that it has what we need.”

Painting: The Adoration of the Magi is an early work by Hieronymus Bosch. The painting was thoroughly investigated by The Bosch Research and Conservation Project and an analysis revealed a palette consisting of the typical pigments employed in the Renaissance period, such as azurite, lead-tin yellow, carmine and gold leaf.

The Magi


Cecilia

Thursday, 22 November, 2018

One of the oldest musical institutions in the world is the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome. It was founded at the command of Pope Sixtus V in 1585, who invoked two saints: Gregory the Great, after whom Gregorian chant is named, and Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music. Her feast day is celebrated in the Catholic, Anglican and Eastern Orthodox churches on 22 November. The story goes that Cecelia was a noble lady of Rome, who, with her husband Valerian, his brother Tiburtius and a Roman soldier named Maximus, suffered martyrdom in about 230 under the Emperor Severus Alexander. She was buried in the Catacomb of Callixtus, and her remains were later transferred to the Church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere.

This portrait of Saint Ceclia is by Il Lucchese, Antonio Franchi (1638–1709). After training in Lucca with Domenico Ferrucci, he moved to Florence to work under Medici patronage. He also published a text on the occupation of painting titled, La Teorica della Pittura.

Saint Cecelia


All our Saints’ Day

Thursday, 1 November, 2018

Initiated by Pope Boniface IV, who consecrated the Pantheon to the Virgin Mary and the martyrs on 13 May 609 AD, All Saints’ Day may have been intended to co-opt the “Feast of Lemuria,” which the old Religio Romana used for placating the restless spirits of the dead. The Christian holy day was established on 1 November in the mid-eighth century by Pope Gregory III as a day dedicated to the saints and their relics.

Our saints

“All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.”
— Saint Francis


The Catholic Sun

Wednesday, 26 September, 2018

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
At least I’ve always found it so.
Benedicamus Domino!

Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953)

If he were to return to us, what would the Anglo-French writer Hilaire Belloc writer make of the state of the Catholic Church? Would he be plunged into despair by its various scandals? Or would he simply walk away from the Faith? To guess the answer, and to help put today’s trials into perspective, it pays to dip into Belloc’s 1937 book The Crusades: the World’s Debate. In it, he wrote, “Our religion is in peril… There is with us a complete chaos in religious doctrine… We worship ourselves, we worship the nation; or we worship (some few of us) a particular economic arrangement believed to be the satisfaction of social justice…” Twenty years later, he added:

“The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine — but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.”

To understand Hilaire Belloc’s outlook, one needs appreciate the complexity of his worldview: he was anti-imperialist, but doubtful of parliamentary democracy; he opposed both capitalism and socialism, and was suspected of anti-Semitism but was violently contemptuous of Hitler. His Catholicism, however, was uncompromising, and he believed that the Catholic Church provided house and home for the human spirit.

“Gentlemen, I am a Catholic. As far as possible, I go to Mass every day. If you reject me on account of my religion, I shall thank God that He has spared me the indignity of being your representative.” From a speech to the voters of South Salford in response to his Tory opponent’s slogan, ‘Don’t vote for a Frenchman and a Catholic.’ On polling day, 13 January 1906, Belloc, standing as a Liberal, overturned a Conservative majority to win by 852 votes, winning again four years later.

Sunflower


Pope Francis – A Man Of His Word

Monday, 16 April, 2018 0 Comments

German director Wim Wenders will be back at the Festival de Cannes (8 to 19 May) with a new documentary titled Pope Francis – A Man Of His Word. According to Wenders, it’s “a personal journey with Pope Francis rather than a traditional biographical film about him. A rare co-production with the Vatican, the pope’s ideas and his message are central to this documentary, which sets out to present his work of reform and his answers to today’s global questions from death, social justice, immigration, ecology, wealth inequality, materialism, and the role of the family.”

Note: Today is the 91st birthday of retired Pope Benedict XVI. Felix dies Natalis tibi!


The Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John

Friday, 30 March, 2018 0 Comments

This powerful image of by Hendrick Jansz ter Brugghen was painted around 1624 for a Catholic “hidden church” in the city of Utrecht, where Catholicism was tolerated but not encouraged. The colour combinations and the light evoke Ter Brugghen’s experience of Caravaggio in Rome, but the angular figure of Christ and the reverential figures of Mary and John are very much his own. The Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John expresses the devotional intensity that Good Friday has evoked down the centuries.

Good Friday


Patrician peak

Saturday, 17 March, 2018 0 Comments

Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh go léir! (Happy Saint Patrick’s Day to you all!)

The holiest mountain in Ireland is Croagh Patrick, five miles from the town of Westport and overlooking island-dotted Clew Bay. According to local belief, Saint Patrick fasted for forty days and nights on the summit during Lent in the year 441 AD, and on the last Sunday in July every year (“Reek Sunday”), pilgrims from near and far climb the mountain in honour of Saint Patrick.

In 1972, the great Magnum photographer Josef Koudelka climbed Croagh Patrick and captured the quintessence of rural Irish Catholicism in one iconic image. The kneeling pilgrims pictured are, from left to right, Sean Pheat Mannion, Paddy Kenny and Martin Mannion from Connemara. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anam.

Croagh Patrick